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Hullabaloo


Friday, November 21, 2014

 

Compassionate at birth

by Tom Sullivan

Genesis 4
9 And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

One of the takeaways from the Genesis account of Cain's murder of his brother is, yes, you are. And we are wired that way, suggest experiments involving young children. Cognitive scientist Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies told Inquiring Minds last week that a basic sense of morality likely developed via Darwinian evolution:

"I think all babies are created equal in that all normal babies—all babies without brain damage—possess some basic foundational understanding of morality and some foundational moral impulses," says Bloom on the Inquiring Minds podcast.

The question is how much of our moral sensibility is innate and how much is acculturation? By studying babies before they receive instruction and language, Bloom and other researchers hope to get at that answer. Using simple puppet plays [video here at Mother Jones], researchers find that babies and toddlers exhibit a sense of fairness, and a preference for "helping" characters. They avoid "hindering" ones.

Interestingly, as the toddlers get a little older, this sense of fairness seems to morph into pure egalitarianism—at least when it comes to distributing other people's stuff. "There's a lot of research suggesting that when it comes to divvying up resources that strangers possess, they are socialists—they like to share things equally," says Bloom.

When asked to hand out treats to other people or to stuffed animals, 3- and 4-year-old children will divide resources equally, if at all possible. Even if they know that one person deserves more of a resource than another because she worked harder for it, they will still opt for equal distribution. In a study of 5-to-8-year-olds, when it was impossible to divide resources equally—for example, if the children were given five erasers to distribute to two people—they would even throw the extra eraser in the trash instead of giving more to one person than the other.

"But this compassion and this helping, it all pertains to the baby's own group," says Bloom. They are less naturally generous with out-group members.

By our natures, we strongly value those around us over strangers. And to the extent that you and I don't, to the extent that you and I might recognize that somebody suffering, I don't know, from the Ebola virus in Africa, is a life just as valuable as those of our closest friends and family, that's an extraordinary cultural accomplishment. And it's something that's not in the genes. It's not what we're born with.

What strikes me is how this research echoes something paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey said about Turkana Boy in speculating about the development of compassion in early Man:

Bipedalism carried an enormous price, where compassion was what you paid your ticket with. You simply can't abandon somebody who's incapacitated because the rest will abandon you next time it comes to be your turn.

There but for the grace of God. Compassion has an evolutionary advantage, Leakey suggests. Perhaps it is what helped us rise above the law of the jungle.

The irony is that a libertarian-leaning conservative posted the Mother Jones article on Bloom — "Science Says Your Baby Is a Socialist" — to a Facebook forum as a tweak to lefties (socialist babies, I suppose). In fact, it would seem that a movement that sneers at being your brother's keeper in organizing human society is hardly an accomplishment, cultural, political, or evolutionary.